Inside Chrysler: the 1963 Plymouth, Dodge, Imperial, and Chrysler cars
I cannot make any claim to accuracy for the materials that I have used to make these articles. In some cases, the journals go back 50 years. — Curtis Redgap
Lynn Townsend had fired Virgil Exner in November 1961, after the Newberg-ordered "downsized" cars had been hurriedly rushed to production. When Tex Colbert had come back, he had been too bogged down fighting his own demons to have much of an influence over the car design. However, when Townsend finally got control, he knew that the 1962 models were a complete disaster, so he ordered a crash change for the 1963 model year.
Exner did not really have a hand in the design of the 1962 Plymouth or Dodge. He was recuperating from a massive heart attack, and the board failed to appoint anyone to take his spot during his long illness, so the design work sort of went on a remote control. Daily changes were ordered by anyone higher than the designers. The cars met the Newberg downsizing limits, but their styling was shrunk without resizing, and they were a sales flop. Dealers went howling after Exner's scalp. Townsend had no choice but to terminate Exner's job at Chrysler — but his replacement, Elwood Engle, newly hired from Ford/Lincoln, made no changes in the Exner designed 1963 models! He told Townsend that they were beautiful cars, as is.
And they nearly were. I do take exception with the Plymouth front end styling. With the parking lights out on the end of the front fenders, viewed from the front, I finally figured out what the 1963 Plymouth looked like — the Wart Hog in The Lion King. The new Dodge Dart and the mid sized Dodge looked bug eyed and sunken chinned as a result of the headlights being podded at the end of the elongated fender; but the rest of the cars showed brilliance.
Dodge introduced a new car on the 119 inch wheelbase, effectively moving it back into the niche it occupied prior to the Newberg downsizing disaster. Plymouth had to suffice with the downsized wheelbase for two long years beyond Dodge.
Looking at the 1963 Dodge and Plymouth offerings belied the exceptional effort it took to get them to the stores on opening night in late September 1962. Given the lack of marketability of the 1961 cars, and the subsequent profit margin losses, the 1963 models had been planned for a face lift only! Can you imagine?
Dad was just beside himself in view of the disaster of the 1962 models. Remember, on dealer introduction day in June 1961, before the sun had set, over 20 dealers had outright quit the Chrysler Corporation.
To add to the misery, close to 200 Dodge and/or Chrysler/Plymouth dealers were forced to close their doors in 1962 due to poor sales, warranty cheating, or plain lack of interest. To even consider running those 1962 ruptured ducks for another year was sheer insanity! Lynn Townsend, at least at first, listened to the dealers. He knew for certain that he had a disaster on his hands. He did not intend to add to it.
His first step in July 1961 was to stop the “S” styling for the 1962 Chrysler and the Imperial. He briefly had entertained the concept of resurrection of the DeSoto with the “S” styling concept that Exner had drawn. He just couldn't do it. It was just too far out. Given the marketing department's lack of ability to sell the car, he let DeSoto rest.
He recognized that there was no way he could pull back the downsized Plymouth and Dodge, so he concentrated on their appearances for 1963. After being in the “crash” styling mode to get the 1962 models downsized, Townsend turned around and ordered complete remakes on the Plymouth and Dodge for 1963. It was a crash program all over again! What Exner had set for Plymouth was completely changed, with the exception of the front end, all the way to the rear bumper. All new!
Dodge was totally changed, including the wheelbase, which grew from 116 inches to 119 inches, as Exner had originally intended. The stylists, accustomed now to pressure, moved with ease, speed, and grace. So much so, that when Townsend gave in to pressure and fired Exner in November 1961, the 1963 models were all in place. Not bad for 5 1/2 months of work!
Dodge also introduced a new size car to replace the Valiant-clone Lancer. The new Dodge Dart, although sort of bug eyed, was a hot seller at the dealerships. It came in the 170, 270 and GT models, with two doors, four doors, wagons and convertibles. The chassis was pure Chrysler, with torsion bars up front and leaf springs in the rear. You got a choice of either the 170 cubic inch six or the 225, backed by a three speed manual or the aluminum cased Torqueflite. Prices ranged from about $1,980 for a 2 door 170 sedan to $2,350 for the GT Convertible.
Opening night was full of excitement. Ford and General Motors had restyled their cars for 1963, and for the most part, Ford looked like it had a winner on its hands. Chevrolet's new SS models were also sharp. Plymouth and Dodge did very well compared to the previous three years.
Dad was at the dealership, but his heart was not in the festivities. Continued pressures from Highland Park to bring all the dealers into some sort of conformity wrangled Dad no end. Fiercely independent, reliance on anyone was totally out of the question for him. With grandpa passing away, Dad lost a lot of heart for focusing on matters that were the daily grind of owning a car store. More and more work got pushed to the General Manager. Finally, just after Christmas 1962, Mrs. Weed, the cornerstone of the administrative functions of the store, announced her intention to retire on New Year's Day, 1963. Mr. Greene, our warranty administrator, decided to retire along with Mrs. Weed.
The first 5/50 warranty
One of the greatest things that Lynn Townsend did was to put an unprecedented warranty on the 1963 models. Every new 1963 Chrysler built vehicle was guaranteed for 5 years or 50,000 miles. It generated unbelievable floor traffic. We had gotten 1,000 tri-folded flyers explaining the new 5/50 warranty, and they were all gone within a couple hours on opening night.
There were some exceptions, and a few clauses that let Chrysler out in the event of nontraditional use (racing) or violation of service intervals, but it was a mainly good warranty, with few problems to it. It forced the service departments to pre-inspect every car prior to sale; Chrysler was breathing down the necks of every service department to see that the provisions of the warranty were enforced to the letter. Stacks of rejections were coming back to Mr. Greene. Not for bad work, but for administrative details that were pretty picky.
Marketing seemed lost on what to call the “new” standard sized Dodges, which rode on the 119 inch wheelbase. It is surmised to keep in line with the big Dodge 880, numbers were used to designate the models. The base model was the 330. The mid range was the 440 (a portent of the future engine size) and the top was the Polara. Engines ranged from the 225 slant six to the 426 RamCharger V-8 (the wedge engine, not the Hemi).
The 426 was not meant in any way, shape, or form as a normally driven street engine. After a wonderful year in drag racing circles with the 62 track terrors, the 426 cubic inch "stage III" V-8 continued Mopar's complete domination of the drag strips. Plymouth and Dodge racers broke records at virtually every level they competed. The 5/50 warranty did not apply to these cars. Prices ranged from $2,400 for a sedan to $3,200 for the Polara 500 Convertible.
The big Dodge was the Custom 880, which rode on a 122 inch wheelbase. The 1963 880 got its own front clip, after using a 1961 front clip on a Chrysler Newport body in 1962. It was pure Chrysler from the firewall back, and came standard, in multiple body types, with the 361 cubic inch V-8 and two barrel carburetor. The top engine was the RB 413 cubic inch V-8 borrowed from the Chrysler stable.
The 1963 Chryslers were completely restyled. All were on the 122 inch wheelbase, eliminating the 126 inch size. Exner’s last efforts were stunners, with some of the finest styling that ever came out of Detroit. The cars were the Newport, the sport edition 300, the New Yorker, and the limited production 3000J, sold only in a 2 door hardtop.
When Indianapolis Speedway came calling for a pace car, Chrysler had to use a sport edition of the 300 since a convertible was not available in the 300J. Unique to the 300 series was the 383 cubic inch V-8, that was not offered in any other Chrysler, and the 426 cubic inch single 4 barrel V-8 that developed 375 horsepower. You could order the full race versions of the 426 in the 300 series, if you wanted to try and race the 3,900 pound sedan! It is surmised that the 426 four barrel powered the Indy Pace car, but 2,187 replica convertibles were equipped with more mundane powerplants.
Two engine options were available on the 300J, both using the 413 RB V-8, providing 340 and 390 horsepower. Only 400 letter cars were built in 1963. We did not sell any. Dad took a Newport 2 door hardtop with a 383 two barrel and power everything for his car. Mom refused to trade her 1960 Valiant, but again she refused.
The Bendix brake system finally came up from the Valiant line; at last, the big Chrysler had stopping power to match its go power. One magazine that tested the 300J took the big car through a series of torturous brake tests from high speeds. On the 8th near panic stop, the pedal finally faded to near the floor. However, after a couple of minutes to cool down, they were right back, ready for another series of stops. Stops of 32 feet from 30 miles an hour and 167 feet from 60 miles an hour were recorded. The brake drums were of cast iron, 12 inches by 3 inches wide. They were heavily flanged on the rims, and deeply finned all the way around. This held their shape and shed heat quickly. They were not the police package brakes, but they were miles above anything coming out of Detroit at the time.
The Imperial models still had those freestanding headlights. The rear had been cleaned up, and at least the tail lights looked like they belonged to the car, instead of standing up like an egg on a fence post. For the first time, Imperial had no models priced less than $5,000. The convertible model were pushing the $6,000 line. The line did do much better in 1963 than 1962.
The 1963 Plymouth were as divorced from the 1962 cars as Elizabeth Taylor was from Richard Burton. For the first time in a long time, Plymouth was generating its own excitement. We had several convertibles and 2 door hard tops in the Sport Fury line. They went on opening night! It was great. Plymouth continued with its models, the Savoy, the Belvedere, and the Fury. The standard engine was the 225 slant six on all except the Sport Fury Convertible, which was mandated a 318 cubic inch V-8.
The top engine available for standard street use was the 383 cubic inch V-8 that put out 330 horsepower — unless you were going racing. My brother’s use of the store-sponsored 1962 Savoy with the 413 short ram had turned him into a professional driver; my brother was able to garner a nice income from racing, with sponsors from Quaker State's local distributor, Goodyear, and Racemaster tires. Dad may have bought the cars, but my brother got all the income to race them on his own.
We knew we were going to have a good year, when Mrs. Beachum came in and got her new Plymouth, trading in her absolutely cherry 1962 model. She liked the 1963 styling, and was gratified that we had gotten rid of the fins.
Curtis buys a car
Some five years after the 1958 models were only a memory, I found my first car. Yes, it was a 1958 Plymouth Belvedere 2 door hard top. It had a black roof, red body, and that long aluminum spear down the side. It also had premium hub caps and white wall tires. It was equipped with the 3 speed Torqueflite, power steering, power brakes, and a gorgeous red, black and silver vinyl interior. One afternoon, I saw the Plymouth sitting inside the garage. Maybe because it was still so new looking, I let my curiosity overcome my caution and walked right up to the car. I don't know what I would have done if he had kept an overprotective dog... but he didn't.
The car was like new. Mr. Schulte was a college professor, supposedly a genius, and I can testify that he had some oddball ideas. He saw me looking at the car, and in a rather high voice with a trace of an accent, he asked me what I wanted. With the exuberance of youth and bold brass hormone making systems at full blast, I said, “the car.” He looked at me sort of crookedly at first and said nothing. It was as though he were conjuring up a concept of some kind.
I had learned on the sales floor that after you make an offer or float a concept out there, you shut up and wait for the other guy to speak first or you lose control of the situation. I waited. Finally, he shook his head. “Ya, bot de enginer es no gut en das autocar.” Again, I kept my mouth shut. Cautiously, I opened the car door. The odometer showed 11,127 miles!
I wondered if it was the second time around. Yet, the car didn't look worn. The tires, carpet, and pedals all looked new. Opening the hood, it was hard to believe that the engine wasn't any good, it all looked still new. Then he showed me the 5 inch hole through the side of the big block 318. Through it I could plainly see the shiny inner workings of the engine. A blown 318? I asked him what on earth happened. Man, what a mistake. Oh, not that he was nasty or mean. He just liked to talk...and talk...and talk!
After 45 minutes he finally got around to the car. To make a long story short, he did not know from beans about machines. He bought the car new from us. He drove it 6 miles a day to work and back. On weekends, he went downtown to the A&P to grocery shop, two miles round trip. Sometimes he would go in the country to visit his friends or relatives. That was the only time the car ever got warmed up!
He forgot that oil should be changed. He got one oil change, from us, when we sent him a card for a free service follow up, shortly after he bought it. Finally, with the oil sump either dry or full of sludge, one of the rods seized up and blew straight through the side of the block. His friend helped him get it home. He put it in the garage and there it had been ever since! He said he was going to have it fixed, but since the warranty had run out, he was embarrassed to ask us to look at it. He had gotten another car (a 1958 Edsel) and just kept putting off getting repairs.
Finally, we got to business. "Ya, vu van das autocar, no? I mak vu a gut deal...vu get das autocar today frum das autohauspark, an vu pay to me ten dollars American. No?” Shoot, I had 10 dollars in my pocket! Dad was paying me $4.35 an hour now to take care of the fleet books, and I had been managing to garner up to 25 or 30 hours on some weeks. I was putting close to 50, 60 dollars a week in my savings account. I slapped that 10 spot into his hands fast enough that he couldn't change his mind. I told him to make out the registration and bill of sale while I went to get my Dad. Dad listened to my tale after I had run most of the way to the store. He didn't say much. Finally, he said, "Well for $10, it won't hurt me the cost of a tow job. I can always sell that much off it as parts." He looked serious about that.
“Not off my car.”
“Well, we'll see about that,” he sort of sniffed. Within an hour though, my first, very own, all in my name car, sat in the back lot of our dealership. No, my Dad didn't get the parts. I, with the assistance of the guys in the shop, switched out the 58 318 for a 59 four barrel 361. Dad said it was okay as long as I put the heavy duty suspension pieces on it, and converted the brakes to the police models. It was not a fun job, and occupied a great deal of my time. I had the tools, equipment, and experience of experts. However, when it was done, man oh man, was that one tough car! I put the dual exhaust system on last. Walt, one of the mechanics that was our exhaust expert took the mufflers and using a cutting torch, put holes straight through both ends of the inside baffles. "More power, less back pressure," he said. It also gave that 361 an authoritative voice when it was running. Dad scowled a lot when he heard it first run. I had gotten my Junior Driver License back in January. I didn't get to drive my car until the first part of August, but how sweet it was!
Dad took me aside right after I got the license tags. He put a lot on me. How I had an image in the community, and especially had to be careful because my Uncle was the Chief of Police. Just a whole lot of guilt stuff that guaranteed that I wouldn't get into trouble because I would be too scared to try anything ...